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Jan 12, 2024

Research Advisor Spotlight: Dr. Gerald Cohen

Dr. Cohen on the Value of Research, Listening and Supporting Others

As Chief Economist for the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, Dr. Gerald Cohen provides strategic vision and leadership to the translational economic research and policy initiatives at the Institute. In addition to his role as chief economist, he has served also as faculty advisor for a number of scholars on their honors theses. Dr. Cohen has been married to his wife, Elizabeth, for 30 years and they have three children.
This summer, Dr. Cohen sat down with us to share his professional experiences and his views on the value of research and the importance of paying it forward.

You’ve done such tremendous work with the scholars. They love you. They love your class. It’s a real value add having you as an integral part of the scholars program.
I’m honored and I love working with the scholars. So, it’s really my pleasure and honor to be involved with them.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got to the Kenan Institute, considering your background is in government having served in the Obama Administration?
Sure. My father was a professor. He’s a physician, but he was a medical school professor. He did a lot of groundbreaking research on treatment of special needs individuals. I think I was always interested in the idea of doing research and trying to solve problems.

(In college) I took some economics classes and I realized that I loved it. It was intuitive to me. So I said, “I’d like be like the professors that I had.” I went to grad school. When you are in grad school, you’re socialized to be a professor, and I loved teaching but it so happened that I ended up having two job offers. One was to be a professor at the College of William & Mary and the other one was to work at the New York Federal Reserve. My wife and I, who we were then engaged and to be married the summer before we started, said let’s try New York. My wife was a fundraiser, and New York is a great place to be a fundraiser. So we went on this path that we didn’t expect and that took me down a set of paths that I didn’t expect.

First, I was at the Federal Reserve and then in the private sector, and then back to Treasury, and then I did a series of jobs in the private sector. Eventually I wanted to go back [to academia] to teach. So when this opportunity [at the Kenan Institute] came up, it seemed like the right fit for my skillset and interest in being in an academic setting, teaching, doing research, and having that bend towards being solutions oriented.

Why do you think research is important?
We need high quality research to solve big problems. If I think about some of the biggest economic problems facing society, I think most people would say, “This is a problem and we need to do something about it.” Without research, we would not know why it is a problem, what has caused the problem, and then what solutions are there to solve the problem. I think that is what research does; it actually tries to solve problems.

Why do you think research is important in an undergraduate business education?
Most people are hired to solve a problem. So, I think having that research experience allows them to do their jobs better.

What do you enjoy about teaching?
I love interacting with students and seeing their faces light up when they get something. I call it my teaching high, getting the sense that I just taught them something and watching the learning process occur. In many cases, my own insights come from their questions. It is super helpful to make me think about an issue in a way that I had not thought about it. When an expert looks at something, we spend our lives thinking about it. When a non-expert looks at it, they bring a fresh perspective. I love that.

What do you enjoy about serving as honors thesis advisor?
I’ll say the fun part of doing that, advising the scholars on individual research, is that I learn a lot about different topics. For example, Shane, who I advised this past year, researched a topic on second chance hiring, which I knew nothing about. I got to learn along with him. I get to be the beneficiary and foster excitement about learning about the students’ topics. I have learned something from all of the students I have worked with. They help me think about the world in a different way.

When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
I love spending time with my family. This goes back to being an economist and seeing all of the
research on how experiences are better than things. I’m very much about experiences. I avoid going shopping, but I love when we travel. I like going a bit off the beaten path, and you know, not just sitting in a bus looking at sites, but actually going hiking or biking.

I think one of the things that is most relaxing for me is fishing. When I need a break or want quality alone time, I go fishing. I find it very meditative, fly fishing in particular. You can find beauty in any stream. There’s also the challenge of trying to figure out how to catch a fish using a fly that I’ve personally tied. That’s very meditative to me and relaxing.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Always listen to your wife.

How would people describe you in three words?
Curious. Dogged. Caring.

Who is one person, living or dead, you would invite to dinner and why?
Abraham Lincoln. I think a lot of people would choose Abraham Lincoln. I would love to get his perspective on where America is now and hear him speak about how he dealt with the Civil War.

What more would you like for people to know about you personally and professionally?
My door is always open. I love talking to students and hearing about their interests and seeing what I can do to help. Sometimes it’s not being a problem solver that is the most helpful to somebody but it’s just being a friendly, supportive person. So, my door is always open!

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